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Distraught families of missing loved ones hopeful of ‘surprise’ homecoming some day



BLESSING AFOLABI feels the pulse of relations of persons declared missing for some years and their expectations of reuniting with them some day

The optimism etched on the face of Mrs Florence Onyebuchukwu was a testimony of her faith in reuniting some day with her daughter, Joy Onyebuchukwu, a 400-level student of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State.

Joy was said to have left where she and her brother live at Ichida in the Anaocha Local Government Area of the state on December 26, 2021, between 3pm and 4pm, to see a friend in school and went missing.

Florence told The PUNCH that Joy was with her brother at home that day. But her brother, Emeka Onyebuchukwu, said Joy left home without disclosing the person she was going to see. He said that she told him she wanted to pick some handouts and past questions from her friend at Awka after Sunday service. Later on, they saw the tweet of one of Joy’s friends, stating that she didn’t get to her supposed destination.

Florence said, “When security agents tracked my daughter’s phone, we discovered that the person she last contacted was one Daniel Chukwuma (identified as Joy’s boyfriend) admitted that she told him she was coming to his place on that day but did not get there. Daniel said when he tracked Joy’s mobile, it was believed that she probably might have been kidnapped within the neighbourhood around Awka and Neni where her location showed. When we called, her number rang but no one picked up the call.”

She noted that they were informed an accident occurred around the area and some of the victims were severely burnt. But she said it was confirmed that her daughter was not there because the tracking details showed that she didn’t get to the crossroad where the accident occurred.

She stated that they paid N400,000 to one Nelson to help her trace the location and whereabouts of her daughter. Florence added that she later discovered he was a scammer because he didn’t do anything about the assignment. She further said that Nelson claimed he traced the phone to Lagos but since then there was no update.

She said, “It felt like we couldn’t trust anyone and we were stranded. We reported to the police at Neni and Awka and they interrogated Joy’s friends who knew where she was going including Daniel. Also, security agents were notified of the incident. I have been to the station many times and spent a lot of money, especially on the private investigator who couldn’t do anything but swindled us of our hard-earned money. We have done all we could to locate her and we are awaiting information concerning her.”

Daniel, who spoke with our correspondent, claimed that Joy didn’t inform him of the time she left her house. He stated that she told him she would visit in the evening of that day, noting that when he tried to call her at noon, she declined the call and sent a text that she was in church.

He said, “She told me what she wanted to eat at about 2:15pm when we spoke. I awaited her arrival so we could eat together. I started calling her around 5pm when I felt she should have got to my place until 9pm when I slept off. But her number was switched off.

“After several attempts to reach her, I called her brother to verify if she left home on Sunday and he confirmed that she did. Later on, I discovered an accident occurred along the road and we tried to check there but we didn’t find her. I used my phone to track hers and discovered she did not get to the scene of the incident.”

He said he felt she might have been involved in the accident, adding that when they reached out to one of the survivors, he could not recognise her but told them that the bus left from Nwaogu to Awka.

The tracker, identified only as Nelson, told our correspondent that he could only grant details of the search in a physical meeting in his office. He later obliged to speak and fixed a date. But several attempts to reach him were futile as of the time of filing this report.

Statistics on missing persons

The International Committee of the Red Cross stated that Nigeria accounted for more than half of the total number of missing persons in Africa. The ICRC further said that about 82 per cent of missing persons in Africa were from seven countries with armed conflict, adding that missing people were not forgotten people.

The committee stated that people have the right to know what happened to their missing relatives and that governments, the military authorities, and armed groups have an obligation to provide information and assist efforts to put families back together.

Data from the ICRC showed that approximately 24,000 persons have been declared missing in Nigeria.

In November 2021, a report by MissingInNG indicated that about 630 people were declared missing between January and June 30, 2021. Of the 630 people declared missing, the report stated that 388 were found and five dead.

More troubling cases of missing persons

A clothier, Felicia Ebenezer, had yet to solve the riddle regarding the disappearance of her mother in June 2021.

Ebenezer told Saturday PUNCH that her mother left home and was heading to church for a vigil at about 7:30pm and called her when she alighted from a commercial motorcycle at Mowe, Bus Stop area of Ogun State that day.

She said, “She called around 7:54pm that she had got a bus heading to Berger bus stop and would inform me immediately she arrived at church. Her church is around Agege area of Ogun State so she was supposed to get a bus heading to Agege at Berger bus-stop. That day was stressful for me as I was busy throughout the day. I slept off immediately after her call.

“I woke up around 11pm that night and I was surprised when I realised that I didn’t get any call from her. I thought maybe she got to church late and joined the service in a rush. It was late already and service would have started. I thought I’d call her the next morning. The next morning, she wasn’t back as of 7:30am which was unusual, so I decided to call her. But her phone was switched off and that was also unusual because she always charged her phone. I tried calling her several times and it was still off, so I called my aunt who attends the same church as her. She told me she didn’t see her at church.

Ebenezer added that it was the stage the search began, calling her siblings, dad, and a few relatives who converged on the house.

She noted, “We all kept calling her mobile and called some other people but all to no avail. So we went to the police station. When we got to the police station, they said it’s not 24hrs yet and we couldn’t confirm if she was missing. They said there was an accident on the express that night and we should work on that to find her. My brother and uncle went to the police station handling the accident case. When they got there, they directed them to the morgue where the bodies involved in the accident were taken to. They went to the morgue and they couldn’t identify her body because all of them were burnt beyond recognition.

“They contacted the only man who survived the accident. My brother and some relatives went to see him at the hospital. He could barely talk, but my brother heard the place when the accident happened. When we calculated the time of the accident and the time she left home, we concluded that she wasn’t involved in the accident and that gave us hope and zeal to continue with the search.

“We tried tracking her, paid two different trackers, made posters and shared them on different social media platforms, prayed, and even paid police to help in the search. But all didn’t yield any efforts. Police kept telling us that they were working on it. Pastors said we should be hopeful because they believe in God that she would return.’’

She further said that the family was optimistic that she would return back. Ebenezer stated, “As Yoruba and Nigerians, there is a belief that when someone dies, he or she reveals himself or herself to at least one member of the family. That has yet to happen in our case. In fact, we have the feeling that she will be back, so we hold on to the hope and belief and we are still praying about it.’’

Besides, the anxiety of awaiting the return of his twin sister constantly grips Taiwo who is now in his early 50s.

Our correspondent gathered that Kehinde disappeared from home 25 years ago. Taiwo in an interview with our correspondent said that Kehinde, who he described as humble, kind and brilliant, was one of the best three students in their class while in secondary school.

He said, “One day, she said she was going to see a friend while we were in Ilorin, Kwara State. Till now, we have not seen her. We have combed everywhere for her. We searched for her in neighbouring countries such as Ghana, Cote D’ivoire, Mali, Republic of Benin and others. But up till now, we have not set our eyes on her.’’

He explained that in the process of searching for her, their mother was involved in a motor accident which claimed her life.

Taiwo added, “For now, we have stopped searching for her. Whether we would still see her or not, is in God’s hands. As for us, we have moved on though her memories linger and we hope to see her. But what can we do.’’

Recently, the family of one Success Abi went in search of her after she went missing on March 30, 2022, while playing with her brothers in the compound at Kpeyegyi, before Kurudu along Karu-Karshi expressway, AMAC, Abuja.

Felicia Abi, the aunt to the missing five-year-old said, “Success went missing around 7pm and according to Success’s elder brother, Joshua, who was the only one that saw her before the incident, Success was beckoned on by a woman whom he thought was a neighbour because it was dark and offered to buy her a drink.

“After checking the neighbourhood and we couldn’t find her, we went to the police station that evening to report the case and were told to return after 24 hours. They started investigating but we haven’t found her. We’ve tried all we can but all to no avail.”

Felicia said they had yet to get any information apart from the police informing them of a woman they suspected usually kidnaps children though they hadn’t nabbed her. She added that they received many calls from people claiming they had Success in their custody and requested them to pay money for her release.

“Three people have tried to scam us. There was a particular person who claimed to be in the custody of success. We informed the police about it and they told us to pay the money, which we did. It was after payment we found out it was a scam. We submitted the phone number and account number of the scammer to the police but they didn’t track it or do anything about it,” Felicia stated.

She noted that the National Human Rights Commission offered to help her sister, Success’s mother, and invited her to their office many times without any cogent development.

In his account, Success’s uncle, Emmanuel Abi, said Success’ elder brother, 13-year-old Joshua, was obviously lost in his play with friends and couldn’t keep an eye on his sister as the last thing he remembered was seeing Success with the woman in front of a shop buying a drink for her.

He said, “We have done everything within our power and have been to the police station. But they seem to be more interested in fleecing us than doing their job. They claimed to have sent signals across the nation, but that hasn’t yielded anything. We have been to the NHRC and the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons.’’

He further stated that he reported the case to the media and was contacted by fraudsters who saw their numbers on the flyer and wanted to make something out of it.

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He said, “Some of the scammers requested money. We did send the money and tried to ensure that they would be traced and arrested. But nothing happened. But Nigeria has happened to us. What can we say? I can’t tell you in words our experience. It can only be imagined. Our collective hope is to find her soon. We are exhausted and spent far beyond what one can imagine going round to search for her. We are hopeful of finding her someday,”

Emmanuel noted that they were advised to contact a private investigator in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, adding that the cost was huge. “The best we were told he can do is to trace the contacts and brief the authorities because he doesn’t have the authority to arrest. We can’t move on. This is a human being we’re talking about,” he said.

The Minister of Women Affairs, Pauline Tallen, once stated that the Federal Government was committed to protecting the rights of missing persons and their families. In 2021, the National Human Rights Commission launched a register for missing persons.

About two months ago, one Mr Sunday Ani and his wife were in search of three children who disappeared from school.

The family of a 22-year-old undergraduate at the University of Ibadan, Oyo State, Samson Ajayi, was in despair after he went missing on March 9, 2022, while going to work on a construction site in the Ajah area of Lagos State.

Also, the whereabouts of a lecturer and government critic, Abubakar Idris, also known as Dadiyata, had been unknown since August 2019 when he went missing.

Trauma of loss

Felicia further said that they had gone through a lot in searching for Success’ whereabouts and only trying to stay calm.

She added, “We have gone through a lot and are only trying to stay sane with the situation. My sister is a single mum and Success is her only girl child. It has been devastating for her.”

Also, Success’ mother, Agnes Abi, said that she was confused about where to go again to search for her daughter.

She stated, “I’m only managing as I do not know where to go anymore. My business has crumbled and my health is slowly deteriorating. I am currently without money and cannot even pay the private investigator I reached out to.”

She told Saturday PUNCH that NHRC asked her to get an affidavit to be granted access, adding that the case was currently with the police.

She said, “I have done the affidavit and will go to the place next week to try again. I’m hanging in here waiting to see what God will do for me. I have tried all I could. It is a strange occurrence in our community.”

On her part, Florence who appeared weary of the search for her daughter, said they had spent a lot and only trusting God to weather the storm. She added that assistance from the police or private investigator would have helped them to solve the riddle regarding her daughter’s whereabouts.

She said, “Joy is such a calm and nice girl. This should not have happened to her. Presently, the matter is with the State Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department, Awka. We have also seen the police spokesperson and all the security agencies in Anambra State. Her number was last tracked in January. Despite tracking her phone, nothing was done until the number was no longer reachable. I will be glad if something can be done to see my daughter again.”

On April 20, 2022, Ehima Elema who is resident in Edo State, took to her Facebook page to announce the homecoming of her friend’s mum, 68-year-old Mrs Florence Ikhine, who reportedly went missing for 20 years. In the video showing the joyous reunion, she recalled that she made a post on her wall in March 2019 to intensify search for Ikhine. She explained that three years after, Ikhine surprisingly showed up along Ehaekpen Street, Benin City, Edo State, where one of her children lives.

She wrote “The children who were young boys and girls but now married men and women have started to travel down to witness what was only seen in Nollywood movies. Details of what transpired during the 20 years have yet to be revealed. For now, everyone is amazed, shocked, excited, and dumbfounded over this wonder. For now, let us celebrate with her children as this story has rekindled the hope of those whose parents or loved ones have gone missing that they would return some day just as Mrs Florence did after 20 years.”

Police, stakeholders speak

Commenting on the issue, a public health practitioner and programme manager, RECONNECT Health Development Initiative, Jean Igwegbe, said the thoughts, uncertainty, and trauma of looking for a loved one could have adverse effects on the mental health of affected families.

Igwegbe said that the extent of the impact differed for different people and the severity would determine the treatment or approach in addressing the issue.

She stated that some form of counselling was required for persons with missing loved ones to heal up, noting that some of them might be suffering from second-hand trauma and the counsellor would determine the measures to treat the family member.

The spokesperson for the Anambra State Police Command, DSP Anthony Ikenganyia, requested details of the missing person and abruptly ended the call.

The public relations officer, Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, DSP Josephine Adeh, said she had yet to receive statistics of missing persons.

She said that she had yet to be briefed about Success’ case, stating that if they had reported the case at the divisional level and nothing was done, they should come to her office to give more details for investigation.

Adeh said, “I am sure the division is not just sitting down. They must be doing something. If they have gone for an update and nothing has been done, then they should come to the PPRO’s office at the command to give more details and follow up. If you don’t follow up, how will you know what the police are doing? It is not everything the police do that is let out. We do not give many details about our investigation. Let them come to my office so that I can have a chat with them.” Success’ family was notified and scheduled a time to meet Adeh.

In his comment, Director-General, International Institute of Professional Security, Dr Tony Ofoyetan, advised that the police legal regime of waiting for 24 hours before commencing any investigation in search of a missing person should be reviewed and amended considering the rate of ongoing ritual killings in the country.

He added that it was not a written law but a procedure within the police formation and the police should have an immediate response team upon report of a missing person.

The security expert said preventive measures should be put in place such that family members could keep tabs on their loved one’s location all the time and reach out to them if they took longer than expected once out of the house.

He added that every individual should share information about their location with a family member or friend especially if they were with someone or somewhere they didn’t know and should always put the location on their phones.

He warned Nigerians to avoid nocturnal trips and travel between 7am to 6pm, adding “Have a good understanding of the route you are plying. Know the off-zones. Ensure you board vehicles only at a proper park. Get the details of the vehicle and send them to your family or friends and let the driver know you have sent the details. If the culprit is aware someone else knows your whereabouts, the tendency of having a change of mind will be high.”

Ofoyetan advised travellers to avoid unbranded vehicles, saying “If you’re the only one on a bus or you discover as a lady there are only males in the bus, hop down immediately.”

He urged families of missing persons to report to the police and track the device’s location, adding that they could get a personal tracking device if they could afford it.

He noted that based on law if someone was missing for more than seven years, the person was legally presumed dead though it’s a rebuttable presumption.

Ofoyetan said that it was high time security agencies started combing forests and uncompleted buildings in hidden places because many missing persons were in kidnappers’ dens, forests, and some herbalists/ritualists’ homes.

On his part, another security expert, Patrick Agbambu, said families of missing persons should not panic because the suspected missing persons might have gone somewhere.

He said, “But they should report to the police after 24 hours if there is no response from them. Though there is an increase in the rate of kidnapping, kidnappers play on the intelligence of victims so victims should be calm and their families should cooperate with security operatives.’’

He advised that people should be security conscious because personal security was primary compared to the one provided by security agents which he described as secondary.

Agbambu said, “In fact, the period we are now, though it’s not peculiar to Nigeria, it calls for more security awareness. We have to be conscious of our environment, where we are, where we are going, or who is around us. Even if one is walking on the street, one must be conscious of where one is.’’

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